THE TIMES March 20,2000

He hasn't sung since 1992 but, at 75, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is making the most of his time. Interview by Hilary Finch

For the days dwindle down to a precious few

Fifty years of performing have left Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with a hunger for creativity Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was concerned that I'd been walking round Berlin for three hours in the rain prior to our interview. I explained that I liked to feel I had plenty of time. "Ah, yes, you are lucky," he reflected sombrely. "That is something I do not have. One thing you must never do is become 75." Did this refer to the exhausting programme of public appearances which the great Mastersinger would be facing in this celebratory year? Or was this a deeper, more existential reflection? With Fischer-Dieskau you never quite know.

On Sunday Fischer-Dieskau will be at the Wigmore Hall - not singing, but in conversation with Sir John Tooley in an event, organised in aid of the Park Lane Group for Young Musicians, which will celebrate the singer's forthcoming birthday in May, and a lifetime in recital, concert and opera.

Fischer-Dieskau made a greater impression on the history of singing in the 20th century than any other performer. From his first recitals and recordings of Lieder in the 1950s, with pianists such as Jörg Demus and Gerald Moore, through to his last, visionary Schubert Winterreise cycles with Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel, Fischer-Dieskau brought German Romantic song back to the forefront of European musical consciousness. And his entire career, which has spanned Bach to Berg; Wolf, Verdi and Wagner; Henze and Reimann, is charted in a special Deutsche Grammophon Fischer-Dieskau Edition of 20 CDs, to be released on April 17.

Fischer-Dieskau's Berlin home is dark, its shuttered windows and double-locked doors shadowed by conifers. His speech is quiet, sober, reticent - but with a coiled energy still ready to spring out of the residual world-weariness. The shadows of a life shaped as much by the Second World War and by the death in childbirth of his first wife as by 50 years of incomparable success, still seem to linger. But behind the dark silhouette glows one of the singer's own vibrant canvases. In bold, energetic oil strokes, Fischer-Dieskau has created a souvenir of his final farewell concert with Wolfgang Sawallisch in Munich: as Falstaff in Verdi's final fugue, Tutto nel mondo e burla - literally, all the world's a joke.


No sooner had he stopped singing than he resumed one of his earliest passions - that of reciting


In 1992 a London Winterreise was suddenly cancelled, and we knew it was the end. How did it feel to stop singing? Fischer-Dieskau is immediately guarded, reserved. "I had prepared myself inwardly for this point in life. And I knew exactly that, when I was no longer able to realise every small detail as I imagined it, then I would have to stop. It's not so good to wander around like your own legend.". But no sooner had he stopped singing than he resumed one of his earliest passions - that of reciting.

Fischer-Dieskau has described himself as being "in thrall" to poetry from an early age: he recited endlessly at school; he typed out poems from memory when serving as an orderly in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. He has recently enjoyed performing the Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann; reading the letters of Strauss and Hofmannsthal with the actor Gerd Westphal; and performing a programme of Goethe's poetry with Beethoven String Trios. "I'm still very bound to the word, you know: committed to making the text more alive, more understood, closer to the audience than it may be on the printed page."

And conducting. "You know, I conducted even before I sang." Fischer-Dieskau's singing career inevitably precluded much serious conducting, but this year he will take up the baton at both the Feldkirch Schubertiade and at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. "But not too much. I have a very talented son who is a conductor, a better one than I am. There are so many young conductors longing for the chance - and in the case of very old conductors, I don't envy the orchestra. Besides, I want to write a very thick book about Hugo Wolf, in time for the centenary of his death in 2003. And I haven't even begun it yet."

Meanwhile, teaching and masterclasses continue. What did Fischer-Dieskau find was hardest for young singers today? "Well, first, simply to maintain their love for Lieder. None of the agents and entrepreneurs are really interested in Lieder recitals. But it has to be kept alive, and there are so many young singers now who are really eager to sing Lieder. Often, though, they are simply not taught how to get in between the lines of the text, to listen to different types of pianissimo, different shadings. There are exceptions, of course - and I have to name Ian Bostridge." The English tenor will be present on Sunday at the Wigmore Hall: he has admitted that he would not even be singing without the inspiration of Fischer-Dieskau.

What was Fischer-Dieskau's opinion of the new cult of staging song-cycles? Bostridge, for example, has worked on Winterreise with director David Alden. "I don't like it, of course. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned and totally out of touch.

"But these projects are often doing exactly what a composer deliberately avoided. Too much - we don't have to hear all the noises, see all the details spelled out. If you hear the wonderful music which exists already behind the lines, you simply don't need more."

What was Fischer-Dieskau most happy to have achieved in a lifetime of singing? A long pause. And then a reference to a single song. "I'm proud of the fact that singers want to perform the Op 35 of Schumann, which was never sung as a complete cycle before me. A song like Stille tränen: it is now sung. And I am very happy about that."


What else is life but a series of shocks, the penultimate one of which is old age, and the final one death?


As I move towards the door, my eye is caught by more paintings and sketches: a line drawing by August Macke; a dark landscape of Paula Modersohn-Becker; a sun-dappled forest in Fischer-Dieskau's own slashed strokes of watercolour. Is he continuing to paint? "Oh yes. Until my last day, probably. Simply for my own pleasure, of course.

"It's another way of being creative. Performing music is more a question of serving. But painting is a dialogue from the start. You make only one stroke - and from that moment you are in discussion with your subject."

"What else is a human life," Fischer-Dieskau has written, "but a series of shocks, the penultimate one of which is old age, and the final one death?" I asked the great singer what inner vision had nourished him, enabled him to withstand the slings and the arrows? He now speaks with no hesitation. "Art itself. It has provided - and continues to provide - a possibility to lift oneself up to another level. Not so far from religious experience - though it is not that.

"It's difficult to talk about these things: better to write. There are wonderful things to be found on these matters in Goethe, in Nietzsche. Goethe always said that life must be like art somehow. It is for him only bearable if it is art. Otherwise it cannot be lived."


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: A 75th Birthday Celebration. Wigmore Hall, Sunday April 2, 7pm (020 7935 2141)
The Fischer-Dieskau Edition: 20 CDs. DG 463 500-2. Released on April 17